In the early ’90s, what we now commonly called alt-country was known as “insurgent country.” Singer-songwriter Robbie Fulks, who performs at 8 p.m. on Thursday at the Music Box Supper Club, became part of that first-generation of singers and songwriters that appeared on the Chicago-based Bloodshot Records’ roster in the early ’90s. He doesn’t glamorize those early days.
Bloodshot Records/Andy Goodwin
“It was like being a poor person in the midst of an obscure bunch of nothing,” he says via phone from his Chicago-area home. “[Bloodshot] had nothing but a wing and a prayer and a dream. My first record for them had a budget of $3000. That’s what they gave me. I spent a little more than that. I bitched and moaned about it but that frugality has kept them going over the years. They’re still here and so am I, so happy endings.”
In 2013, after two decades of playing music, he reunited with the label for Gone Away Backward
. Earlier this year, he returned with Upland Stories
, a collection of somber songs that expand the sound of the acoustic-oriented album that preceded it. The songs directly draw from the literary types such as Flannery O’Connor, Anton Chekhov, Mary Lavin, Frank O’Connor and Javier Marias. Three new songs—“Alabama at Night,” “America Is A Hard Religion,” and “A Miracle” — were inspired by James Agee’s 1936 trip to Alabama that he documented with photographer Walker Evans in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
. Fulks initially intended to use them in a play. But since the play is currently on the backburner, he thought they’d work in the context of the album.
“I wrote eight songs from various points of views and from different perspectives and musical styles to cast about in the dark and musicalize that experience somehow,” he says. “Of the eight, three ended up on this record. I didn’t write them for the record, but I liked them as songs and felt I could deliver them without having to explain what they were.”
Fulks says he doesn’t recall how he first came across Agee’s book. But once he sat down to read it, he found it appalling.
“Some of the writing was dynamite but a lot of it was really offputtingly abstruse and needed editing,” he says. “A lot of it is angry at the reader for no particular reason. There was a lot going on under the surface besides just reporting on poor families. Then, I read the briefer version he submitted to Forbes
magazine before it metastasized into crazy angry book. That, which was reprinted under the title Cotton Tenants
, was really readable and informative and just seemed better to me in every way. It translated some of the outrage of the longer book. Maybe I’m reading literary history upside down but to me it was the better book. To me, the photographs were the most distinguished and amazing feature of the book.”
The backing band he assembled for the recording includes serious players such as bassist Todd Phillips, violinist Jenny Scheinman and fiddler Shad Cobb. Flatlanders guitarist Robbie Gjersoe and drummer Alex Hall also play on the record along with multi-instrumentalist Fats Kaplin and keyboardist Wayne Horvitz. Steve Albini (PJ Harvey, Bush) recorded the group’s live singing and playing on old German mics using a non-automated Neotek board. As a result, sparse folk-y songs such as "Needed" and "Alabama at Night" have a real immediacy to them.
“I’ve been working with Steve since 1986,” says Fullks when asked about Albini. “Each of us knows what’s going to happen. His guidance of the music is pretty minimal during tracking. During mixing, less so. And it’s collaborative. He has a strong skill set to offer. He doesn’t press his argument past the point where you feel like you have to weep or yell at him or do anything unusual like that. He’s very reasonable.”
Critics have described the album as “philosophically reflective,” something he says is accurate.
“I’m taking a cue in philosophical openness from some writers I’ve read like Javier Marias, who is liberated to wander around on the page,” he says. “There are a handful of writers who have encouraged me to throw off the shackles. I think that’s another way of phrasing what you call reflectiveness. It’s positive aimlessness which allows the characters to move in different directions than expected and it also permits your mind to come up with phrases or thoughts that you might not have come up with if you stuck to a more rigid framework."
He also says the material "feels natural" to his age.
"As a 25-year-old writer and looking 30 years into the future, it would have been hard for me to visualize what I would be writing about," he says. "I was writing angry songs about women and excited songs about music and songs about falling in and out of love and doing drugs or whatever. It’s all material that would be absurd for a 55-year-old guy, which I’ll be soon. To be middle aged in writing, it could be challenging to find those themes, but I think I’m finding them in the buried past and in ideas from books.”